“Tail Shortening” – A Backward Step in Animal Welfare for Political Gain?

By Robbie Henderson (AVS Junior Glasgow Rep)

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For many years Scotland has been seen to lead the way in animal welfare, from compulsory microchipping to legislation surrounding welfare at slaughter. However this summer a vote was passed to amend the blanket ban on tail docking within Scotland that would give exemption to spaniels and hunt point retrievers. This would allow for ‘tail shortening’ of these breeds, in accordance with the specified guidelines. This move was not backed by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) with President of the Scottish branch of the organisation, Melissa Donald, speaking out against the decision: “We are appalled that MSPs voted to reverse Scotland’s previously progressive stance on tail docking, especially considering the evidence against this move.” The evidence being referred to is government commissioned research that states: “up to 320 spaniel puppies tails would need to be docked to prevent one tail amputation”. The figures simply do not add up. Why put countless five-day-old puppies through unnecessary suffering to protect this tiny minority?

The answer to this may lie in the realms of politics rather than animal welfare and scientific evidence. An often forgotten side of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the party largely behind the move, is found in areas such as the rural east of Scotland, where many previous Conservative strongholds have recently voted SNP. The SNP therefore has somewhat split loyalties between the left wing, socialist side of their party and the more conservative right wing aspect. It may be claimed that the party is pandering to the landowners and gamekeepers who feel very strongly that their gun dogs should be allowed to have docked tails. Although this issue divided political parties, a large number of SNP and Conservative MSPs voted for the change.

Regarding the procedure itself, when we hear ‘tail docking’ we immediately think of the Boxer or Rottweiler left with no more than a stump. The incidence of working Boxers and Rotties nowadays is few and far between so it seems the case that these stumps are purely an aesthetic preference. In the case of the amendment proposed, what is being discussed is termed ‘tail shortening’ rather than docking, where a maximum of one third of the tail can be removed within the first five days of life by a qualified veterinary surgeon without anaesthetic. The procedure should only be carried out if there is “sufficient evidence” that the dog will be used for work in future. How can a breeder prove within the first five days of life that his/her litter of spaniel puppies will go on to be used for hunting and not live their entire life as a family pet? Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Alex Hogg, addresses the misunderstanding of terminology by saying that “It is a quick, preventative procedure protecting the animal over its whole working life, leaving it with an expressive, waggy tail”. His statement is an attempt, rightly or wrongly, to distance the procedure from the public perception of aesthetic tail docking.


I feel it is pertinent to note, that many young new graduate may have never been exposed to the procedure in practice. Therefore it is vital that all vets are given proper guidance on both how and when tail shortening can be carried out. They must not feel pressured into carrying out the shortening of a dog’s tail if they feel ill prepared  or are uncertain on the legality of what they are doing. There is also an issue of moral decision making, which may play a part in individual cases.


To conclude, we must hope that in due course clear legislation on this issue is released to allow vets, breeders and potential owners to be on the same page regarding this procedure. Clarification on the “sufficient evidence” required to shorten a puppy’s tail should be paramount. The procedure, when carried out on working dogs, may result in no compromise to welfare. In contrast, when dogs that will never be used for hunting in their lives are subjected to undue suffering we run into serious welfare concerns. We must not be dragged into the legalisation of aesthetic procedures that we have worked so hard to end. How long before a case is made for the legalisation of ear clipping of Doberman Pinchers and Great Danes on “welfare grounds”? Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole have moved past the endorsement of these barbaric cosmetic practices so we must stand firm on the issue and ensure we do not let protection of welfare slip through the net. Issues as vital as this should be made on the basis of welfare science and compassion, not party loyalty and tradition. Without any published legislation, it is too early to say whether this was the case. Although the amendment may not be a huge bounding leap forward in the welfare of our companions, we must hope that it is not the beginning of the downward spiral for political gain.